Postmodernism has most often been theorized with relation to the arts or literature, but artificial intelligence, quantum mechanics, and a general move away from disciplinarity reveal that postmodernity is not only a simultaneous formation across disciplinary boundaries, but it also challenges distinctions between art and science altogether and suggests that the two cannot be thought separately.

„The projected manufacture by men of artificial wombs, of cyborgs, which will be part flesh, part robot, of clones – all are manifestations of phallotechnic boundary violations.“

Mary Daly, Gyn-Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism

„The cyborg is resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy and perversity. It is oppositional, utopian and completely without innocence.“

Donna Haraway, „A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science,
Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s“

Obviously, the definition of postmodernism is contested. However, a working model of postmodernism demands that it have a historical dimension, a political perspective, and a cultural domain. Because the theoretical concerns of postmodernism and feminism often seem to mirror each other, questions arise as to whether the two are in dialogue or opposition and whether one takes precedence over the other. I contend that feminism and postmodernism enjoy a mutual dependence within the academy and in relation to mass culture. Because postmodernism has often been represented as a chameleon discourse, without a stable shape, form, or location, I offer a working definition that attempts both to situate it and to maintain its ambiguities. Theorists such as Andreas Huyssen and Jean Francois Lyotard suggest that postmodernism does not simply follow after modernism: it arises out of modernism and indeed interrupts what Lyotard identifies as modernism’s grand narratives. Huyssen finds that postmodernism sometimes breaks critically with modernism, and at other times merely reinscribes the modern enterprise. The postmodern is not simply a chronological „after“ to the modern; it is always embedded within the modern as interference or interruption and as a coming to consciousness of a subject no longer modeled upon the Western white male. In his attempt to historicize postmodernism, Frederick Jameson calls it a „cultural dominant“ in the age of multinational capitalism. As cultural dominant, postmodernism participates in a different perception of space and time, in the production of a fragmented subjectivity, and in the breakdown of a surface/depth model in the realm of representation. Refusing to designate postmodernism as a „style,“Jameson demonstrates that postmodernism is a production within a system of logic at a precise time in history.

Most theories of the postmodern concede that it involves a changing relation between our bodies and our worlds. Jameson suggests, with reference to architecture, that postmodern hyperspace „has finally succeeded in transcending the capacities of the individual human body to locate itself, to organize its immediate surroundings perceptually, and cognitively to map its position in a mappable external world. „But the vertigo that Jameson describes, like the confusion precipitated in Lyotard’s text by the breakdown of „grand narratives of legitimation,“ is nothing new for women and people of color. The world, after all, has been mapped and legitimated for only a small group of people. As postmodernity brings space and truth, time and body, nature and representation, and culture and technology into a series of startling collisions, we begin to ask questions about what interests were served by the stability of these categories and about who, in contrast, benefits from a recognition of radical instability within the postmodern. Such questions have informed debates about postmodern feminism. By exploring feminist claims that postmodernism is merely an intellectual ruse to reconstitute the subject as white and male, I show that postmodernism and feminism are in fact mutually indebted. On the most basic level, feminism forces a theory of gender oppression upon postmodernism, and postmodernism provides feminism with a politics of artificiality.

Transmutation-0202001-no2 is an experimental AI driven art print and colaboration between Vienna artists Offerus Ablinger and Hidéo SNES
0202001 No 02

The relationship between feminism and postmodernism is anything but familial – they are not to be married, hardly siblings; they are both more and less than incestuous. The most successful unions of these two discourses, indeed, have suggested a robotic, artificial, and monstrous connection. Donna Haraway’s 1985 essay, „A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s,“presents a radical departure for an emergent postmodern feminist discourse. Haraway merges radical feminism with a postmodern articulation of history and a politically necessary analysis of science and technology. She calls for a repositioning of socialist feminism in relation to technological production, theoretical articulations of the feminist subject, and the narrative of what she calls „salvation history.“ The cyborg for Haraway is „a condensed image of both imagination and material reality, the two joined centers structuring any possibility of historical transformation. „Such an image is particularly useful for feminists who seek to avoid the ideological dangers of recourse to an authentic female self. Haraway’s cyborg displays the machinery of gender; clothes herself in circuitry and networks; commits to „partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity“; and revels in the confusion of boundaries. Haraway has been criticized for engaging in „an epistemological fantasy of becoming multiplicity“ by Susan Bordo, who identifies a danger in theoretical projects that embrace multiple and unstable subject positions. Such „deconstructionist readings,“ she suggests, „refuse to assume a shape for which they must take responsibility.“ Bordo is not alone in her suspicion of the elusiveness of the postmodern subject. Nancy Hartsock asks: „Why is it that just at the moment when so many of us who have been silenced begin to demand the right to name ourselves, to act as subjects rather than as the objects of history, that just then the concept of subjecthood becomes problematic?“ Both Bordo’s suspicion of the locatedness of the postmodern subject and Hartsock’s questioning of the historical imperative behind the postmodern project are valid and timely inquiries. The subtext to both questions is whether the postmodern subject, fragmented and in flux, is not after all merely another incarnation of the masculine subject of the Enlightenment. Gender, such theorists fear, has been deemphasized in order to allow the male subject to be renaturalized as „human.“ Bordo, then, accuses postmodern feminism of refusing „to assume a shape, „and yet Haraway has outlined clearly the shape, form, and agenda of a postmodern feminist cyborg who participates in power structures. Hartsock finds postmodernism to be suspiciously contemporary with the coming to voice of many who have previously been silenced; and yet, academic feminism, at least, is surely a discourse with a voice and with an increasingly empowered place within the institution. Hartsock asks why is it that subjecthood splinters when marginalized groups begin to speak. The answer is already embedded in her question; subjecthood becomes problematic, fragmented, and stratified because marginalized Others begin to speak. The concept of the unified bourgeois subject, in other words, has been shot through with otherness and can find no way to regroup or reunite the splinters of being, now themselves part of a class, race, and gender configuration.

The fears that Bordo and Hartsock articulate are indeed justified, but to overindulge in such a speculative drift must surely reduce institutional power to a one-way dynamic that always reproduces a center and margins structure. Debates about whether certain theoretical strategies neutralize the political content of academic feminism – or, worse, collaborate in its co-optation – are necessary and important as long as they do not fall back upon a conception of power that identifies it as full-scale repression coming from above. Power, Michel Foucault has forcefully demonstrated, comes from below; and the postmodern subject, in its fragmentary and partial form, was formed out of the very challenge made by feminism to patriarchy. Haraway concludes her essay: „Although both are bound in the spiral dance, I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess.“

Although both are bound in the spiral dance, I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess.

The cyborg and the goddess are suggestive terms for the comprehension of feminism as always multiple. Feminism has never been a monolithic theoretical or cultural project, but certain ideas do attain a kind of dominance over time. Hence, the „spiral dance,“or history, makes the cyborg inconceivable in feminism without the prior presence of the goddess; one does, indeed, stand upon the other’s shoulders. Haraway’s essay figures the cultural feminism of the late 1970s and the early 1980s as the goddess because it revived and reinvested, in an idealized concept of woman, a concept that exiled her in nature and essentialized her in relation to gender. Such „cultural feminism,“ one which ignores the material bases of oppression and cathects „woman“ as the real, the true, and the natural, reproduces, in Biddy Martin’s words, „the classical split between the individual and the social formation“ and assumes „that we can shed what is supposedly a false consciousness imposed and maintained from the outside, and begin to speak a more authentic truth.“ Although the goddess and the cyborg are merely poles in a complex debate, they are useful in thinking through gender. Indeed, although the terms of the debate may change over time, in the arguments for and against a postmodern feminism we can still trace an oscillation between these positions. The ground between the goddess and the cyborg clearly stakes out the contested territory between the category „woman“and the gendered „body.“ So, if the goddess is an ideal congruence between anatomy and femininity, the cyborg instead posits femininity as automation, a coded masquerade.

Still of the movie "Metropolis" by Fritz Lang from 1927 of main character Maria
Still of the movie „Metropolis“ by Fritz Lang from 1927

As early as 1970, Shulamith Firestone in TheD ialectic of Sex suggested the promise of the female cyborg: „What is called for is a revolutionary ecological program that would attempt to establish an artificial balance in place of the ’natural’one, thus realizing the original goal of empirical science: total mastery of nature. „Firestone argued that feminist revolution must seize control of the means of both production and reproduction: cybernation and fertility control will relieve women of their historical burden and lead the way to a different and fully politicized female subject position. Firestone remained caught in a kind of biologism which grounds gender oppression in the body of the mother. And although her call for „total mastery“ resubmits to a kind of holism, she has nonetheless envisioned a solution which is neither apocalyptic nor idealist and one which welcomes developments in science and technology. Firestone’s claim that „the misuse of scientific developments is very often confused with technology itself“ leads her to suggest that „atomic energy, fertility control, artificial reproduction, cybernation, in themselves are liberating – unless they are improperly used.“ Such a perspective concurs with Haraway’s argument that „taking responsibility for the social relations of science and technology means refusing an anti-science metaphysics, a demonology of technology .. .“ Firestone’s grim optimism in the 1970s was countered within feminist discourse by the demonization of science and technology which, quite understandably, stemmed from a fear of the relatedness of technology and militarism. Mary Daly’s Gyn-Ecology, perhaps the most important work in the cultural feminist tradition, imaginatively and yet reductively performs an unequivocal rejection of all technologies. In a section entitled „From Robotitude to Roboticide: Reconsidering,“ Daly argues that „phallotechnic progress“ aims eventually to replace femaleness with „hollow holograms“ and female bodies with robots through such techniques as „total therapy, transsexualism and cloning.“ Daly proposes a strategy to counter this process and calls it „roboticide“ or the destruction of „false selves.“ Given the history of gendering technology as female in order to make it seductive, the threat of a Stepford Wives phenomenon certainly has validity. However, Daly’s cultural critique hinges upon an investment in binaries such as natural and artificial, intuitive and rational, female and male, and body and mind. Daly reinvests in the fear of autonomous machines and equates artificiality with the loss of an essential self.

Transmutation-0202001-no1 is an experimental AI driven art print and colaboration between Vienna artists Offerus Ablinger and Hidéo SNES
0202001 No 01

Daly categorizes cloning, artificial intelligence, and reproductive technology (or,as she terms it, „male-mother-miming“) as boundary violations perpetrated by scientists, the „priests of patriarchy.“ She reads robotitude, or automated gender, as a negative condition because she imagines that it replaces something natural and organic within „woman.“ Unlike Haraway, Daly is certain of what counts as nature and of what constitutes a true self. I suggest that even though automated gender does indeed involve a certain „robotitude,“ automation functions amidst constant interference from the random elements of computer technology and therefore constantly participates in the ordering and disordering of resistances. The imperfect matches between gender and desire, sex and gender, and the body and technology can be accommodated within the automated cyborg, because it is always partial, part machine and part human; it is always becoming human or „becoming woman.“

The imperfect matches between gender and desire, sex and gender, and the body and technology can be accommodated within the automated cyborg, because it is always partial, part machine and part human; it is always becoming human or „becoming woman.“

To argue, as the cultural feminists do, that automated gender removes the humanity of the female subject is to ignore the technology of gender and to replicate a patriarchal gendering of technology. As we saw in relation to Turing, technology is given a female identity when it must seduce the user into thinking of it as desirable or benign. Daly’s argument that the female robot contaminates woman’s essential naturalness regenders the natural and the artificial in the opposite direction as female nature and male science. In a recent issue of Feminist Studies, Jane Caputi provides an updated version of Daly’s critique of phallotechnocracy. Caputi’s farranging analysis examines what she perceives as the ominous cultural import of the blurring of human and machine. Caputi opens her argument with a cogent reading of a television commercial for Elephant Premium floppy disks during election week 1984. The commercial’s subliminal message, she suggests, is about memory, the mythical memory of the elephant, her own memory that the elephant is a symbol of the Republican party, and the electronic memory of the floppy disk. Caputi is concerned here with „there-placement of organic memory by an artificial substitute,“ and she fears that humans and machines will „slur/blur ever into one another, humans becoming more cold, the machines acquiring more soul.“ Memory, artificial memory, also concerns Caputi in her consideration of the Apple computer logo.

She argues that the logo both reactivates the myth of original sin and creates a new and dangerous myth about „an artificial paradise, indeed the artificial as paradise.“ Here, Caputi fails to question the very artificiality of the „natural“ paradise she implicitly defends. The apple, as I have tried to suggest, is Turing’s apple, an artificial fusion of mathematics and the body, death and desire, sex and gender. In order to remain aware of the hidden messages in commercials that link conservatism, corporate business, and computer technology, Caputi warns, we must learn to „see elephants,“ to remember, „to no longer accept the part as the whole, to perceive and act upon essential connections.“ We might ask of Caputi and Daly, what is so anxiety provoking in a blurring of machine and human and what is so attractive in holism and universalism? I propose that the fear in the first and the desire in the second spring from and return us to the complementary binaries of Western metaphysics. Caputi’s concern that we are being duped by a patriarchal conspiracy of signification perhaps overlooks the fact that oppressive mechanisms more often deceive by wearing the mask of truth than by hiding; the action happens at the surface rather than down below.

As Oscar Wilde wrote, „the true mystery of the world is the visible not the invisible.“ In a discussion of Marshall McLuhan’s The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man, Caputi further simplifies what is at stake in the concepts of „woman“ and „female.“ She writes of the „Mechanical Bride“ (in effect, a female cyborg): „This symbol is also a metaphor, one that links technology to creation via an artificial woman/wife/mother. As such, it cannot help but expose the enmity that technological man declares for living flesh and blood creation – nature, motherhood, the womb – but also for female reality.“ In her attempt to maintain strict boundaries between the authentic and its simulation, Caputi opposes the mechanical bride to „female reality,“ a slippery concept, and she relocates nature and motherhood firmly within the female body. The female cyborg, therefore, becomes in her argument a symbol for male technological aggression against women; she does not attempt to explain what fear the technological woman, the mechanical bride, generates in herself.

Artwork by Ira Livingston, untitled drawing, mixed media within the text "The female cyborg: Feminism and postmodernism." by Judith Halberstam
Ira Livingston, untitled drawing, mixed media

To predicate a critique of patriarchy, as Caputi and Daly do, on the basis of a true and authentic female self, who jealously guards her boundaries (physical and spiritual) and her goddess-given right to birth children, is merely to tell the story that patriarchy has told all along about women: women are morally superior to men, and they have an essential connection to nature. The female cyborg is, for both Daly and Caputi, a feared image of the seduction of woman into an automated femininity rather than the image of what patriarchal, masculinist authority fears in both an autonomous technology and in femininity itself. The mistake lies in thinking that there is some „natural“ or „organic“ essence of woman that is either corrupted or contained by any association with the artificial. However, femininity is always mechanical and artificial – as is masculinity. The female cyborg becomes a terrifying cultural icon because it hints at the radical potential of a fusion of femininity and intelligence. If we define femininity as the representation of any gendered body, and intelligence as the autonomous potential of technology and mental functioning, their union signifies the artificial component in each without referring to any essential concept of nature. A female cyborg would be artificial in both mind and flesh, as much woman as machine, as close to science as to nature. The resistance she represents to static conceptions of gender and technology pushes a feminist theory of power to a new arena. The intelligent and female cyborg thinks gender, processes power, and converts a binary system of logic into a more intricate network. As a metaphor, she challenges the correspondences such as maternity and femininity or female and emotion. As a metonym, she embodies the impossibility of distinguishing between gender and its representation. By merging so completely the familiar with the strange, the artificial with the natural, the female cyborg appears to evoke something unsettling, something that profoundly disturbs and frightens certain authors. We might call the effect produced by the female cyborg „uncanny.“ „The uncanny,“ Freud writes in an essay of the same name, „is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.“ He then leads us back to the repressed as castration or the repressed as the mother’s genitals. The repressed becomes uncanny when it recurs: it is the familiar (i.e., the mother’s genitals) become strange (i.e., castrated).

By way of illustrating his theory, Freud refers to Hoffman’s tale, „The Sand Man.“ He wants to use the story to prove his thesis that the threat of castration is what creates uncanny effects. Freud argues that the uncanny is represented in the castrating figure of the Sand Man himself, rather than in the lifelike doll, Olympia, with whom the hero, Nathaniel, falls in love.

But I cannot think – and I hope most readers of the story will agree with me – that the theme of the doll, Olympia, who is to all appearances a living being, is by any means the only element to be held responsible for the quite unparalleled atmosphere of uncanniness which the story evokes…. The main theme of the story is, on the contrary, something different… it is the theme of the Sand Man who tears out children’s eyes.

In this passage, Freud deliberately and forcefully shifts the terms of the debate in order to oppose Ernst Jentsch’s work suggesting that the uncanny is produced by intellectual uncertainty. Jentsch gives as an example „doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive,“ and he refers to „wax-work figures, artificial dolls and automatons.“ Obviously, for Jentsch it is the automaton Olympia that is the locus of the uncanny in the story. Freud refutes Jentsch not only because of the importance of the castration theory to psychoanalysis, but also because Freud needs to separate the female body from both technology and the production of terror. Thus, he can maintain a critical connection (the very connection that Caputi and Daly defend) between the female body, nature, and motherhood. A cycle of repetition-compulsion characterizes Freud’s wandering journey through the uncanny. He represses the female figure Olympia who returns as the „painted woman“ of Italy (the gen-Italia); then as the dark forest in which one might be lost; and finally as that „unheimlich place“ itself, „the entrance to the former heim [home] of all human beings, to the place where everyone dwelt once upon a time and in the beginning.“ This return reassures Freud of the possibility of an origin (easily lost among infinite repetitions) and calms his fear of the automated woman, the doll to whose womb neither he nor any man may return. Olympia, of course, is a cyborg, not a flesh-and-blood woman; nonetheless, she is desirable. Technology and the feminine reside at once in Olympia.

Olympia, of course, is a cyborg, not a flesh-and-blood woman; nonetheless, she is desirable. Technology and the feminine reside at once in Olympia.

Olympia, the mechanical bride, represents technology’s seductiveness and its inevitability. In Hoffman’s „The Sand Man,“ Olympia seduces the protagonist, Nathaniel, because as automaton she does not interfere with his narcissistic need to find himself mirrored in the Other. Her answer to all his questions, „Ach! Ach!“ assures him that he has found true femininity, a perpetually consenting adult. When she is revealed to be an automaton, when her femininity as mechanism is finally brought to his attention, his very masculinity lies in the balance. Olympia as automaton radically questions the possibility of taking the body as proof of gender. She produces uncanny notions that the machine is more than a metaphor for self, that sexuality has a mechanism, and that gender is a technology. Clearly, there is a problem when the arguments used within psychoanalysis or within modern scientific discourse to essentialize femininity are replicated within feminist theory. Mary Daly warns us of the dangers of robotitude but fails to problematize the ways in which technology has already been gendered female or why. Jane Caputi opposes artificial and natural memories but does not remember that feminism has called naturalized memory, or „history“ into question all along. Some strands of feminist theory have demonized science and technology rather than attempting to undo oppressive discourses while participating in those that may empower us. In the age of the intelligent machine, political categories can no longer afford to be binary. A multiplicity is called for that acknowledges power differentials but is not ruled by them; that produces and reduces differences; and, finally, that understands gender as automated and intelligent, as a mechanism or structure capable of achieving some kind of autonomy from both biological sex and a rationalistic tradition. The female cyborg, in other words, calls attention to the artificiality of gender distinctions and to the political motivation that continues to blur gender into nature.

The female cyborg, in other words, calls attention to the artificiality of gender distinctions and to the political motivation that continues to blur gender into nature.

Feminist rereadings of what Haraway calls „the social relations of technology,“ of Olympia the artificial woman, the mechanical bride, can contribute to different technologies and different conceptions of gender identities. The apparently female cyborg releases the female body from its bondage to nature and merges body and machine to produce a terrifying and uncanny prospect of female intelligence. Gender emerges within the cyborg as no longer a binary but as a multiple construction dependent upon random formations beyond masculine or feminine. Different readings of cultural symbols, such as the apple of temptation, produce new myths and refuse the eschatology of a Christian science. Turing’s travels into artificial intelligence, his experience of the technology of gender within his own body, his homosexuality, and finally, his fatal bite into the cyanide apple produce difference and the artificial as always concomitant with the natural. The cyborg and the apple demand post-Christian myths, myths of multiple genders, of variegated desires, myths of difference, differences and tolerance.

This post was automatically generated by the media-artwork „Meine Krake heißt Klothilde“ (Eng: My Kraken’s name is Klothilde) by Hidéo SNES.

Repost from programaddssrr | Autor*in: Judith Halberstam | Feminist Studies, Vol. 17, No. 3 (Autumn, 1991)